On the Road – Part 3

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

We’re at Day 60 on our Silk Road by car odyssey, out of China, through Kazakhstan and into Kyrgyzstan, but here are some final thoughts on driving in China after covering 10,500km from the Laos border to the Kazakhstan one.

▲ My car, Burgundy, in trouble. It was totally my own fault, we hit a very bad stretch of road when we left the ‘highway’ between Turpan and Kuytun and I clouted the exhaust on a big rock … or something. It shook the exhaust manifold loose and roadside repairs are being made.

The Roads
We covered almost the entire distance across China on highways – freeways, motorways, whatever you want to call them – unfortunately I didn’t keep track of the cost (any road of any standard in China seems to have a toll on it), but it’s been a lot of money. Where I did make comparisons it seemed to be about 40% more than autostradas in Italy. The general standard of the roads was excellent, in the first week or so the engineering was amazing, so many bridges, viaducts and tunnels. Between Shanghai and Beijing, around those cities and around assorted other big cities the traffic was heavy, but much of the time it was very light. The number of toll booths at highway entries and exits would indicate that they’re expecting much heavier traffic in the future.

The toll booths were almost always annoyingly slow. Even when it was just a flat toll, hand over the money, get a receipt and any change back, it often seemed to take forever. Quite often this involved recording our Chinese licence plate details. There are electronic tolling booths (ETC), but surprisingly few vehicles seemed to use them, particularly trucks which you would have thought would have been big users.

▲ Very often the roads were new and a new high speed rail line ran close by, here’s a high-speed train shooting by between Zhangye and Jiayuguan

▲ Particularly in the far west of the country we saw huge numbers of wind turbines, the Chinese are clearly doing something about their pollution problems if the amount of renewable energy coming on line is any indicator. New highways, new high speed railway lines, new wind farms, all part of the massive Chinese infrastructure programme.

Police Checks
Even slower than the toll booths were the police checks, sometimes we just got waved through, sometimes they took a long time, but usually just because the tailbacks, not specifically because of us. It took over an hour getting through the police check entering Beijing, there was big security around the One Belt One Road conference there. And then in Hami, where we had to wait for a police escort to our hotel. We didn’t get an escort back from our hotel to to the town outskirts, but there were lots of police checks in our final days in touchy Xinjiang Province.

▲ police check as we entered Horgas, the border town from China to Kazakhstan.

For me the police checks had an additional interest because we had to have temporary Chinese driving licences and it appears that really old old people – like me – can’t have one. They gave me one anyway, but it was provisional when everybody else’s was temporary and somehow this might have made a difference in some unexplained way. In fact the licences don’t show your age so I was warned never to show my licence and my passport at the same time. ‘Make some excuse if you get asked for both.’ I never was although a couple of times approaching a police check we quickly switched drivers in my car.

Satnav & Garmin
I had maps I quite liked – from the German cartographers Reise Know How  – but that was large scale stuff. We relieved on satnav for finding our way around towns and to our hotels and we had all downloaded Garmin’s City Navigator China which costs about US$110. Verdict? Completely useless. Of course it was often out of date (roads change fast in China) but most of the time it didn’t have a clue where we were, there were incessant demands to ‘perform a U-turn’ or regretful reports that it was ‘recalculating,’ often as you crossed a bridge or were half way through a tunnel. When you eventually got to Hotel B the location was quite accurate, but between Hotel A and Hotel B it didn’t have the faintest idea. Everybody in the group was thoroughly disenchanted.

Half way through the trip we all switched to the (free) Open Street Map which was far better. But we also had our Chinese guide and she generally knew precisely where we were, using the Chinese version of Garmin.

▲ We made lots of fuel stops across China, this one between Chonqing and Wanzhou

It’s entertaining, the signature Chinese driving maneuver on the freeways is the undertake. You’re about to overtake somebody when a car hurtles up inside you and elbows in front of you to get ahead. The rule of the road seems to be ‘if my bumper is in front, the road is mine, get out of my way I’m cutting across you.’

If undertaking fails there’s always the inside emergency lane to undertake both you and the truck you were going by or occasionally, if all else fails, squeeze down the middle between you and the truck you were going by. On the other hand we never saw any incident of road rage and almost always drivers would let you in or out if you were stuck in the wrong lane, trying to get out from a car park or side road, or even just generally confused.

Correction, we saw several incidents of road rage, from one or other members of our non-Chinese team! ‘You pushed in front of me at the petrol station queue!’ And on the final km or two to the border a truck which splashed through a big puddle approaching a traffic light and dramatically soaked one of our gang through his open window.

▲ Motorcycles seem to be banned from the highways and in any case most Chinese motorcycles are small, low capacity machines essentially used around cities. In the last week or two, however, we saw numerous groups of foreign cyclists pedaling along the emergency lane, possibly heading along the Silk Road, like us.

▲ Our guide Green was fairly obsessive about ‘speed cameras,’ which are extraordinarily frequent in China, although l don’t think they were really speed cameras at all, just a gantry across the road festooned with CCTV cameras and assorted blinking lights. There were occasional real speed cameras, which usually didn’t seem to be working.

▲ Trucks were often very heavily loaded.

▲ There are lots of foreign cars in China and lots of Chinese-made foreign cars (Volkswagens and Buicks in particular) along with unfamiliar Chinese brands like Haval or Roewe. Then there are cars like the Land Wind – not Land Rover – which is a close copy of a Range Rover Evoque.

▲ The huge numbers of car transporters with huge numbers of car on board (12 is not unusual) are a clear sign that China is the world’s largest car manufacturer. Sometimes you see trucks loaded down with other goods and a few cars casually plonked down on top.

▲ I like this shot, out of my window in a Xian traffic jam. OK, it’s the standard developing world shot of a big crowd on a small scooter, but it’s also an indicator of China’s increasing affluence. OK mom’s not picking the children up from school in a Land Wind, but it’s a new electric scooter and note: the kid on the back with her smart phone in hand, the fact that the kid on front is in a seat that’s clearly a permanent attachment to the scooter, the phone or something strapped to mom’s wrist, and how generally well dressed, yes affluent, everybody looks.

▲ The cars always attracted attention, onlookers checking the maps on our doors in Qufu

▲ And we were constantly being photographed, this gentleman stepping out into the traffic to snap us in Xian

▲ But more often it was from another car, like this one from a passing car between Xining and Zhangye, my car’s Chinese license plate in the front window.

▲ Or front and back seat passengers simultaneously taking photos. Very often the photographer was also the driver although you are not supposed to use your mobile phone while driving. Once I noticed the driver of a bus and the driver of a police car both photographing us at the same time.

▲ A couple of hotels put up welcoming signs to our MGB group, like this sign at the Kuytun Haide Hotel.